A modern-day Noah's Ark for plant species, the Millennium Seed Bank in southern England is ready to embark on a mission to collect and preserve the seeds of about 10% of the world's seed-bearing plants. The project opens for banking business on 26 August.
In one of the largest international conservation efforts ever undertaken, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London has completed a $120 million expansion of its rural outpost in Wakehurst Place to preserve seeds from more than 24,000 species. When the seeds--about 10,000 per species--arrive, they are cleaned by hand, dried, checked out by x-rays, and stored in sealed containers at -20°C. Every 10 years or so, staff members will "test the viability of the seeds by letting them germinate," says cryobiologist Hugh Pritchard. He estimates that most will last for a couple of centuries.
The Millennium Seed Bank aims to have samples from 10% of the world's quarter-million-plus plant species by 2010. The focus is on drylands (that is, not tropical forests), where desertification and population growth pose the biggest threats, says Pritchard. About half of all palm species, for instance, will be on the brink of extinction before the end of the century, he says.
Plans for the seed bank have been germinating since 1992, when Wakehurst's existing seed collection, now comprising 5000 species, reached capacity. In 1995 Kew scientists landed a $45 million expansion grant from the National Lottery's Millennium Commission.
Research in the new facilities, mainly bankrolled by the Wellcome Trust, will focus on improving preservation and germination technologies to increase the longevity of the dried and frozen seed. Pritchard hopes that the seed bank "will serve as a catalyst" for similar efforts in other countries.
The Millennium Seed Bank's home page